Harlingen officials are boasting that they’re going green – even if they’re driving taxpayers deep into the red in the process.
City officials on Friday celebrated the installation of 308 solar panels at the Lon C. Hill office building. They expect the panels to produce a third of the building’s electricity, and say they’ll save the city about $7,500 a year in energy costs, or about $187,500 over the expected 25-year life of the materials.
To save those $187,500, the city spent $636,000, plus unexpected contract overruns and the cost of maintenance.
Maybe we’re being too harsh on those involved in the project. Based on these savings the system could pay for itself in about 85 years – if no money is spent on maintenance. Unfortunately, solar systems still have erratic durability records. Many panels burn out well before their 25-year target lifespan.
This is one of several solar applications being implemented in the Harlingen area at a total cost of nearly $2 million. Some $1.08 million of that is going into a system of panels that officials hope will generate about one-fourth of the energy used at Lee Means Elementary School. About 900,000 of that will be paid by a grant from the State Energy Conservation Office. Another $43,750 will fund both solar and wind energy products at Harlingen High School. Solar panels also are being installed in the new University Center at Harlingen, where several colleges and universities, including the University of Texas at Brownsville, UT-Pan American and Texas Southmost College, will offer classes.
We’ll go easy on the schools, since those projects have an additional educational value. The solar system at the University Center is part of the initial construction contract, which we hope reduces the overall cost.
Officials were quick to point out that most of the money came from federal and state grants. Somehow that means the money is free, we are asked to believe.
“There is no local taxpayer money in the entire system,” District 2 City Commissioner David Leftwich told our reporter last week regarding the Hill building.
The good commissioner is either disingenuous or ignorant. Even if the money was a gift from the federal government, it originates from the same place as local tax money – your pockets.
What’s worse, it’s safe to assume that officials in other Rio Grande Valley cities wish they’d been the ones inaugurating the project. Some of them probably applied for the same grants. After all, the grants enable them to spend more money without tapping too far into their own budgets.
Certainly, conserving energy and reducing the use of fuel is a good long-term goal. That goal, however, does not justify the waste of tax dollars; the wasted money could have gone to provide other services – or better yet, allowed taxpayers to keep more of the money they work so hard to earn.
We expect all spending, however, to be frugal. As we noted, the local officials might not see much of a dent in their budgets, but the taxpayers feel the effects even when somebody else has taken the money away from us.
Spending $636,000 in order to save $188,000 is a waste of money, no matter how officials might try to color it. Unfortunately, it’s that kind of thinking that makes government involvement in such projects such a big mistake. Since it isn’t their money, officials have little incentive to watch their dollars.
The time could come when solar, wind and other means of generating energy become cost-effective. This isn’t the time, however. Until it is, we must expect officials to spend our money wisely; otherwise we should replace them with people who will.